/ 8 March 2019

SA needs a leader of Sobukwe’s calibre

Politically spiritual: Robert Sobukwe believed that politics is an ethical duty and that personal transformation is required to produce ethical leaders.
Politically spiritual: Robert Sobukwe believed that politics is an ethical duty and that personal transformation is required to produce ethical leaders. (Robben Island/Mayibuye Archives)


I am here to deliver a tribute lecture to a great soul, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. A tribute to Sobukwe is, in the words of Kevin Harris, a “tribute to integrity”. He is much bigger than the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which he founded; he is for all African people and he is for all humanity.

I agreed to deliver this lecture on Sobukwe because he is one political leader whose role needs to be made known to our people. He was a gifted person, a thought leader whose “intestinal fortitude” and courage puts him in a class of his own.

Some have described him as a political loser because of the state of the PAC. One cannot use the internal divisions in the PAC as a lens through which to make judgements on Sobukwe’s legacy. He was arrested and spent his jail term in solitary confinement on Robben Island and was later under house arrest in Kimberley until he died in February 1978. It was during his absence that the organisation fell into rough hands. But during his time as the PAC president, his leadership was felt in and outside his organisation. Those who worked with him, remarked on his demeanour, trustworthiness, sharp intellect and common touch.

Those who see Sobukwe as a political failure have got it wrong. We live in a time when “truth” is usually on the scaffold and “lies” on the throne. But it’s the scaffold where truth has been thrown which sways the future of mankind. The enduring power of Sobukwe’s ideas, the moral authority of his political leadership is transcendent and offers moral leadership insights. But he remains marginalised in today’s discourses and celebrations of political leadership. This must change.

Delivering the Sobukwe tribute lecture, you can hardly avoid reopening old debates. These were never settled, except that at one point we were all caught in the thrill of the Mandela moment in the early 1990s. It was during that thrill moment when unfortunate things happened. Now that “the thrill is over”, old questions and tensions are making their way to the fore, in particular the land question — a question that was at the heart of Sobukwe’s emancipatory discourse. The kind of deal-making in the early 1990s was unfortunate but occurred to ensure the political settlement was brokered, with little regard for matters of principle.

Of course, a politics of pragmatism had taken centre stage and theory and strategy took a back seat. Perhaps the challenge is the Constitution we agreed to, which gives every right and limits a lot of material possibilities. We focused during negotiations more on conquering the levers of state power and hoped all else would follow. It is for this reason that some of us recall the wisdom of Sobukwe’s emphasis during the liberation struggle on the return of land to the dispossessed majority. To him this was the condition for authentic national liberation.

The compromises made on land during the transitional negotiations are the foundation of many of the troubles South Africa faces today.

Without resolving the land question you can’t resolve racism. Racism is a product of unequal power relations in the economic sphere and land is central in the economic sphere. Fortunately, the issue of land has been resurrected, mostly by the Economic Freedom Fighters. The question is: Will it be resolved? I am not sure.

It will require strong thought leadership, a leadership that has moral authority to turn around South Africa’s situation. It is for this reason that I decided to talk about “the political spirituality” of Sobukwe. It is about interconnectedness and wholeness. The term was coined by French scholar Michel Foucault after observing the Iranian Revolution. He posits spirituality as resulting from an interpenetration of opposites — the subject and truth: “The subject is not capable of the truth … the truth can transfigure and save the subject.” The interpenetration is not a simple relation but is the “rebound” effects of the truth on the subject. As Foucault puts it: “The truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquillity of the soul.” What emerges therefore is that spirituality is a “form of ‘practice” that arises from the transfiguration of the subject, which occurs because of “subject-truth relations”.

One could argue that political spirituality occurs when the political becomes the sphere of the spiritual; when the ethical character of politics as a duty to fellow human beings is restored. This is contrary to the view we grew up knowing — that politics is war by other means. Sobukwe is the best example of a leader whose political life demonstrated that politics should be an ethical practice. He demonstrated the connectedness, the interpenetration, the transfiguration of “self” required to produce a leader who sees politics as an ethical duty to fellow human beings.

The situation of leadership, especially political leadership that can be trusted, is dire in South Africa — democracy could soon be hit by a legitimacy crisis despite our wonderful Constitution and routine elections. Political spirituality that results in trusted leadership underlines the ethical basis of true politics.

We live at a time when our political landscape is dominated by the “terrible explosion of the worst political leadership faults”. These emanate from the rise of a new phenomenon, a “politicised mafia faction”. Among the primary activities of this faction is the brokering of agreements, some of which are superficially legal but ultimately unethical. The ethical transcends and completes the legal.

The ethical addresses “conscience and consciousness”, what philosopher Paulo Freire calls one’s “innermost being” without which one cannot authentically exist. The rise of a politicised mafia is playing a crucial role in the provincialisation of state power. In the provinces are “big men” who subvert national direction and interests. The province is a battleground of power politics.

The politicised mafia in our political organisations penetrate every sphere of governance. As a result, people who can get things done to save governance in this country find themselves on the margins. The meanness of intentions, the rapacity of this formation, the political influence it commands now informs how political leaders are chosen and this eventually affects the fabric of society. The crisis deepens when we lack the courage to stand up against this phenomenon.

We keep patching things up, revising legislation and policies and setting up commissions but we don’t touch the most fundamental aspects of our crisis — the investments we need to improve capacity in our communities, to improve the mind-set of society and to build bonds of solidarity based on renewed consciousness of alternatives and possibilities. One important lesson to learn from Sobukwe is that politics is a sphere of ethical duty and those who go into politics must do so for the right reasons.

Sobukwe’s ideas were prophetic; some of the issues the ANC is dealing with today he pointed out in the late 1950s. One such issue was about the role of white liberals and communists in the liberation movement. His critique of communists was underlined by an admiration of and support for the vision of society aspired to by communism. He was never anti-communist, he was never anti-ANC, he was never anti-anybody but he stood for truth.

He differed with the ANC and eventually led the Africanist split and the formation of the PAC in 1959. The differences were at the level of ideas; they were about the strategic direction of the liberation struggle. From the perspective of Africanists, the ANC wavered about the implementation of the 1949 Programme of Action and allowed communists to dominate the direction of liberation struggle politics. A critique of attempts to “sovietise” the liberation struggle emerged again after the ANC’s Morogoro conference in Tanzania in 1969. It was advanced by a group led by Tennyson Makiwane. They were expelled in 1975 and Makiwane was killed in Mthatha in 1980.

The problem of how the South African Communist Party articulated with the broader national liberation movement remained an issue in exile and after the unbanning of liberation movements in 1990.

Of all the political leaders we have had in the history of South Africa’s liberation struggle, Sobukwe is outstanding. He left behind an example of the calibre and standard of leadership that this country and Africa needs — a leadership that embraces the pain of sacrifice, stands for what is good irrespective of whether it will win or not and sacrifices without expecting returns. What distinguishes Sobukwe is that he owned his soul. Nobody owned even a part of it for some investment or deal. When Sobukwe left this world he took away with him “the prodigal paradox of an ethical political revolution”.

This an edited version of the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Tribute Lecture delivered by the University of Johannesburg’s Professor Kwandiwe Kondlo at the University of Fort Hare in partnership with the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust